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Cox, Tigers gaining recognition

This Southeastern Conference business is tough stuff.

Brandon Cox, Auburn's first-year starter at quarterback, is far too bright to say he has it licked. What he will say is that he's getting there.

The same could be said for the 16th-ranked Tigers, who find out Saturday just how good, how average or how underappreciated they really are when they travel to Tiger Stadium to take on LSU.

"It's no different than last year," Cox said. "Nobody was really picking us to win it at the beginning of the season. Go back and look at how many teams in the conference were ranked ahead of us to start the season."

The answer is four -- Georgia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee.

"We kind of snuck up on everybody and started getting the recognition that we deserved," Cox said. "This year, everybody sort of forgot about us when we lost that first game [to Georgia Tech]. But we've gone out and played our game each Saturday since then and have gotten better each time out."

The Tigers (5-1, 3-0) have won five consecutive games since that season-opening loss. They've won 13 straight SEC games dating to the end of the 2003 season.

Although Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Carlos Rogers, Jason Campbell and crew might have accounted for the bulk of that streak, nobody on the Plains is ready to concede anything just because four first-rounders from last season's SEC champion team are gone.

"We're still the champion, and it's up to us to defend that title," Cox said. "We wore T-shirts all summer with a target on them. That's how we've approached it.

"As long as we don't lose any SEC games, they can't take it away from us."

Cox's maturation this season has mirrored that of the team. He took a beating in the loss to Georgia Tech. The Tigers had trouble protecting him, and he turned it over five times -- four interceptions and a fumble.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has since blamed himself, saying the coaching staff dumped too much of the burden on Cox in his first collegiate start.

Cox wound up throwing 44 passes against Georgia Tech, which was more than Campbell threw at any point last season. The Yellow Jackets unloaded an array of different blitzes, repeatedly sending Cox to the turf.

But he kept getting back up.

"The most important thing about that game is that my teammates and coaches never lost confidence in me," Cox said. "They still believed in me, and I never lost confidence in myself."

Cox, a third-year sophomore, has benefited from having Al Borges as his offensive coordinator. Borges helped Campbell go from being one of the SEC's most erratic passers to the league's offensive player of the year and a first-round draft choice by the Washington Redskins.

Cox's development has been equally impressive this season, although he will be the first to tell you that he has yet to face a defense the caliber of LSU's.

"No doubt. We've got the meat of our schedule coming up," said Cox, who's third in the SEC in passing efficiency (148.1) and fourth in total offense (225 yards).

He has thrown just two interceptions since the opener, and both of those came last week in the first half against Arkansas.

Auburn trailed 10-3 late in the second quarter in Fayetteville, but Cox threw three touchdown passes in the second half as the Tigers pulled away for a 34-17 victory.

"He doesn't get rattled," Borges said. "I've had kids who do, but he's always the same."

Similar to what Georgia Tech did to Cox in the opener, Arkansas came after him with a steady stream of blitzes in the first half.

He was able to adjust this time, though, and so were the Tigers. Instead of asking Cox to do more, they asked him to do less and leaned instead on the running game. Kenny Irons rushed for a career-high 182 yards on 33 carries.

Cox, who missed five of his first nine passes, regrouped to hit 13 of his next 17. That kind of precision, coupled with an Auburn defense that appears to be every bit as good as last year's unit, will keep the Tigers right in the middle of the championship race.

Auburn has allowed an SEC-low seven touchdowns this season. The Tigers are ranked third nationally in scoring defense and sixth in total defense.

"When you have a defense like ours, it's up to us not to put them in bad situations," Cox said. "If we do that, then we're going to win the game."

One of the things the Auburn coaches like best about Cox is his willingness to use all the weapons around him. He's throwing to a talented, experienced cast of receivers. The running game also has picked up with the emergence of Irons.

Tuberville thinks Cox is ahead of where Campbell was at this same point in his career.

"One of the main reasons is that we've been in the same offense for two years in a row," said Tuberville, who had offensive coordinators coming and going before Borges' arrival last season.

"Jason didn't have that luxury. He didn't have the ability, like Brandon, to learn from the same coach, calling the same plays and learning the same techniques. Brandon has been around. He had a chance to watch Jason, and has grown up over the last three years. He had a very good high school coach and has a football mind. He really studies football."

Cox also has studied the magnitude of Saturday's trip to the Bayou.

"It's the biggest game we've played all year," he said. "We had some big shoes to fill with all the great players we lost last year, and not many people gave us a chance to fill those shoes.

"Here's our chance to make a pretty big statement. We win this one, and the [Western Division] championship is in our hands as long as we keep winning."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.